Back in the 1990s, when the political world was fascinated by Newt Gingrich and his band of revolutionaries storming to power in Congress, the bulwark of their Republican party actually could be found elsewhere, far from Washington.
The GOP’s real strength in those days was in the states of the upper Midwest, where a group of smart, energetic governors not only held a crucial piece of political turf for their party, but also became the party’s fount of policy ideas.
Now, Republicans hope history is about to repeat itself.
While attention once again is focused on the debilitating political and policy fights in Washington, the most important political story of 2010 may lie in a series of gubernatorial and state legislative races in the same Great Lakes region of the upper Midwest.
There, Republicans have a good shot in November’s elections of taking back governors’ seats in Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa. They also have their eyes on winning control of legislative chambers; Republican control of state houses of representatives is within reach in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana.
In their quest for these prizes, Republicans are bringing significant resources to the table. Ed Gillespie, a former national party chairman, this year is running the Republican State Leadership Committee, an organization devoted to electing state officials. He says the committee has assembled 85,000 individual donors and will bring $18 million to state-level battles, including many in the upper Midwest.
If Republicans succeed in taking most of those targets, they will be re-establishing a beachhead that was crucial to the party and its national policy thinking in the 1990s. So, yes, there are sexy governor and Senate races under way in California, and Tuesday’s primaries in Colorado have big national significance. But ground zero in 2010 may well lie in the decidedly less sexy Rust Belt.
The significance of this battle is partly political. State leaders will redraw congressional districts after the 2010 elections, and, obviously, Republican leaders would make that process more favorable to their party. In addition, the states of the upper Midwest, though their populations have declined, remain crucial in presidential politics, and Republican governors might help deliver those states for a GOP nominee in 2012 (though, as Republicans found when President Bill Clinton won re-election easily in 1996, their ability to do so is limited).
The ranks of governors also tend to produce presidents. In fact, four of the last six occupants of the White House once were governors. So a new crop of governors also becomes, by definition, a new crop of eventual presidential contenders.
But the battle for control of the upper Midwest may be most important because of the region’s proven capacity to serve as an incubator for innovative Republican policy ideas, at a time when the party’s leaders in Washington aren’t exactly overflowing with them.